Protest Thongs

It's not just a gathering of near-naked partiers wearing body paint and playing Twister; it's a political demonstration

By Chris McNamara
Special to the Tribune
Published August 8, 2004

When a group of political activists gather to disseminate information about the alleged dangers of genetically modified organisms, recruit new members to their cause and share a meal of organic foods they--quite naturally--get naked. And they play Twister.

It's Friday night at Buddy, an alternative art gallery in Wicker Park, and THONG (Topless Humans Organized for Natural Genetics) is celebrating their community while spreading their message and shedding their clothes.

"THONG is not about lobbying or letter-writing," says co- founder Just Joking Jerry, a middle-age trial lawyer who, tonight, wears only a flame-imprinted thong with matching mask. "There needed to be a group that was more action-oriented in its opposition to genetically modified organisms. THONG goes into the street and does something."

That something usually entails wearing next to nothing. The group of about 20 members, mostly young, vegetarian and liberal, performs what they call "actions." In 2003 when executives from Kraft (a focus for the political activists because of the corporation's size and use of genetically modified foods) participated in a fun run on the lakefront they were unexpectedly joined by members of THONG. Running alongside the bigwigs were scruffy, nearly naked protesters and one activist in a huge, blue cardboard box with the label reading "Kraft Macaroni & Genes."

To stay within decency laws, the activists wear thongs. And body paint covers nipples while doubling as a method to communicate. A woman's chest might be painted with the word "biotech" and the image of a skull. "I'd rather go naked than . . . " is also a popular theme.

The bare essentials

"We've never been arrested--we've been compliant to the law without compromising our political activities," says Chicago's Natalie Nguyen, 24, THONG co-founder, artist and self-described dominatrix. "We strip to the bare essentials. It's a way to get people interested in a complicated issue."

Here's the complicated issue: Genetically modified foods are scientifically designed to exploit specific genetic traits to increase size, profit, nutritional value, etc. Organic foods, on the other hand, are grown with naturally occurring seed, avoiding pesticides or chemically produced fertilizers. "

A portion of our corn and soy crops are enhanced with biotechnology," says Kris Charles, spokeswoman for Kraft. "It's important to know that the broad scientific consensus including the FDA, USDA and AMA have found that biotech foods are safe."

Groups like THONG fear that our current knowledge of genetic modification is too slim and government regulation is too ineffectual. "Science has gotten ahead of politics," says Just Joking Jerry, betraying his moniker. "These things could be poisonous. God only knows. We could be creating Frankenstein."

That's a viewpoint that is hard to miss at this THONG party. One long table is covered with informational brochures and white thongs bearing the group's logo. Informational posters line the walls, alongside boxes of macaroni and cheese encased in biohazard bags. The bar serves organic juices mixed with Rain vodka and Goose Island's Honkers Ale-- products free from genetic tampering. You can modify your state of mind without modified foodstuffs.

Also hard to miss are the costumes. Some wear variations on the birthday suit.

"Nudity is a very powerful confrontational tool," explains Just Joking Jerry. "We are used to being vulnerable when we are naked. But in public,nudity is powerful. It's counter- intuitive. It makes you stronger."

Tall, topless and thonged, Karen Bouwman is a new member of THONG. "It's cool to find a group that educates about what's really going on with the stuff we are consuming," says the 30- year-old Chicagoan, a vegetarian for 15 years. "There aren't any other groups like this."

That's an understatement. Those that are clothed wear bizarre masks and goofy garb. Members of Environmental Encroachment, a jam band consisting of creatures who look like martians, provide the tunes with ambient drums and horns. The bongo player has a lettuce head. A metallic fish-man plays the castanets. A dancer is dressed as a cow. "We do children's shows," announces the bandleader, who dons an oversized, plastic phallus.

Heavy stuff

The second floor of the old building creaks and bows as the dancers bound to the beat. It feels ready to give way, ready to collapse upon itself and hurtle all the boobs, butts, bongos, organic cocktails, THONG brochures, revelers and activists onto crowded Milwaukee Avenue.

But it holds. And as midnight approaches, the crowd has filled in and loosened up. A few dozen remain inside, while dozens more have ventured onto the roof deck for body- painting and massages. Nguyen plays beautiful instrumentals on a cello.

Blue Line trains speed by, offering passengers a fleeting glimpse--NUDITY! MARTIANS! CLASSICAL INSTRUMENTS!--of bacchanalia. As he gives full-body rubs at the massage table, therapist Jonathan Jacobs, 25, of Chicago is dressed as a devil with a riding crop dangling from his hip.

While there are numerous other eco-political groups in the city (GeneWise is another Chicago-based initiative), THONG has existed for only about a year. And it's loosely based-- people attend actions or parties, people drift off. But the core members' dedication to fighting genetically modified foods is strong, their knowledge of the subject is deep, and they are committed to shedding light, along with their clothes, on the topic of genetic modification of food.

The next time THONG will spring up at a fun run or political rally? You'll have to wait and see. "Coming soon to a public park near you," says Just Joking Jerry, eyes glinting through conservative spectacles and the peepholes of his flame- imprinted mask. With that cryptic statement he disappears back into the crowd, where girls are dancing with girls, one guy is waltzing with a puppet, and fish-men and aliens groove alongside cows.

Copyright ? 2004, Chicago Tribune